My first portrait commission

I’ve been playing with portraits for just over a year now. It started with a mixed media portrait class with Martha Miller through the Maine College of Art. Love her! Since then, I’ve used reference photos from Sktchy to build a practice of drawing portraits weekly. I attend a weekly gathering of incredibly inspiring artists who take turns posing for 12 minute sittings. And, I just made it into the Portland Drawing Society’s Honored Guest 2.5 hour drawing sessions. I’ve even sold one of my portraits. I’m feeling good.

When my friend Pat asked to commission me to do a pastel portrait using a 1950’s hand colored photo of his dad as a reference I jumped at the chance. Boom! This is exactly the challenge I need. It has to look like a real person who is loved and missed. It has to be worthy of hanging in a home I visit frequently.

I dug in and started doing studies. I sketched on post-its then moved to my sketchbook.

John study one — colored pencil on toned paper.
John Study 2 — colored pencil on toned paper.

I readily saw the importance of studies. I did not expect them to be so different! And so the downward spiral of doubt began. A few more post-it sketches here and there and I was losing momentum. I began to plan my deferral of moving to using my good Uart 400 grit sanded paper and pastels. I had a pastel workshop coming up in a month. I decided I needed to wait and see what I learned there. Pretty good justification of my procrastination, no?

Here’s the thing. The pastel workshop was focused on plein air landscape painting with Richard McKinley. Richard is an excellent instructor, and I definitely pushed my technique. Still, it got me no further to working on the portrait. In fact, I decided that the warm days were slipping away. I needed to get out and take advantage of plein air season. Tick, tick, tick.

Then the rains started. Pastel does not hold up well in the rain. My makeshift guest room studio was warm and dry and oh so inviting. Tick, tick, tick. I cleaned my board. Tick. I organized my pastels. Tick. I cleared my drafting table. Tick. I measured and cut my lovely, coveted large sheet of Uart 400. Tick. I taped the paper to the board. Tick. I played with the positioning for the reference photo and easel. Deep breath. I grabbed a 2B mechanical pencil and got started.

John final sketch

Ok, typing final sketch under that photo did not feel right. I don’t truly believe it will be the last one. However, I needed to commit and tighten this likeness up. Twice I snapped pictures and overlaid them on the original in Procreate as a way to check proportions, angles, and alignment.

Sketches overlaid on the original

On the left you can see my first pass was hit and miss. The left eye and right shoulder- good. The right eye, nose, mouth and left shoulder needed a lot of adjusting. Along with Procreate to help me make adjustments, I am also fortunate to live with another artist. At anytime, I can ask my husband, Bill, to take a look and tell me what’s working and what he’d tweak. I can’t tell you how important it is to have a Bill you can ask for clear and objective critique.

Next, the underpainting. For landscapes, I typically lay in hard pastels, such as NuPastels. I tend toward contrasting colors for the underpainting because I find it makes the true colors pop. For landscapes, I use rubbing alcohol and a very wet brush to let the color run and bleed. For this portrait, I kept the underpainting dry and contained.

John underpainting

Sometimes I fall in love with the underpainting. There was something about the color shift from the muted hand-coloring in the original that felt really fresh. I texted this photo to Pat to see if he felt the same. Nope. He’d prefer to stick to the original. I understand that. This is a photo he’s looked at throughout his life.

Time for another break. I swear I’m not wimping out. I’ll jump back in after a short trip. Part 2 to come soon!